CHAPTER XVIII

"We the jury find the defendants guilty of all charges."

Those words played over and over in Matthew's mind as he strolled through Central Park, the sun's rays light and lofty on his back.

The trafficking ring he'd lost three years of his life to had been brought to an end, and now three more years later, its leaders had been convicted. With every step on the dead leaves scattering the path, Matthew still couldn't believe it was all almost over.

Sitting down on a bench, the Canadian waited for his boyfriend to arrive. Sure enough, within ten minutes, Alfred was jogging down the path toward him. Matthew got up and met him halfway, embracing him tightly after a week without contact. "I missed you," Matt whispered into his lover's ear.

Al shivered when the tepid breath met his ear, teasing, "Cut it out, you're making me hot."

"Oh, so you didn't miss me?" Matthew teased back, wrapping his arms around the American's neck.

"Of course I missed you," Al replied, pulling the other close. "Don't get me wrong, I love spending quality time with Dad and Francis- I mean Papa, as he wants me to call him now, but I can't stand to be away from you. Why else would I take my courses online?"

Matthew smiled, thinking of how his boyfriend was earning his bachelor's in criminal law at an online university. With all the attention being paid to the trafficking case, the media was going crazy over how inexperienced the police were when it came to the crime. The American's strong sense of justice had led him on a mission to reform the way law enforcement dealt with the issue.

"I'm gonna be the one to recognize the signs and stop these rings before they even take off. It may take years, but I'll move up the police chain and be the hero for trafficking victims everywhere. You can count on it!"

"You've always been ambitious," Matt murmured to himself.

"Huh? What'd you say?"

"Nothing, I'm just talking to myself."

Shrugging his shoulders, Al let it fly and put an arm around his boyfriend as they walked over to a bench. "So, how's the memoir going?"

"Good…I guess," the Canadian answered, the smile fading from his face. "The ending will be a call to action no matter what Ivan's sentence is, but it's still a major factor."

"What do you mean?"

"I know Natalia is getting life for killing a police officer, and the others are harmless without Ivan. They wouldn't have even gotten into the business without him. All I'm worried about is how long Ivan will be incarcerated because if they let him out, he could come back and hurt me…or worse, start up another trafficking ring. That fear is going to be reflected in my writing."

"You know, I've been learning criminal law for over a year now," Al stated, "and I know that if a trafficking case is bad enough…he could get life in prison."

"…It'll never happen," Matthew argued, gripping the denim of his jeans. "It's not like he murdered anyone."

"Matt, he…with all the things he's done to you, there's no way the judge would ever let him back on the streets. He's too much of a dangerous offender to risk it."

Right, Matthew thought, I keep forgetting he knows what Ivan did to me that night. Alfred had been in the courtroom all week, meaning he'd heard all of the Canadian's testimony, from his first night in the ring through the electrostimulation torture and after.

Letting out hitched breaths before a caustic laugh, Matthew retorted, "You know, I…I keep thinking of how it would be just my fucking luck if Ivan died before he even set foot in prison. I mean, that's what happened with…m-my…father."

It was still difficult to call that scum his father, but in the courtroom, there had been no way to shirk referring to the man as what he was. Matt remembered how the prosecutors had been so fervent to find his father and arrest him, only to discover the man had died in a drunken car crash little after selling his son to the ring. "He…he took the easy way out, the fucker."

The hatred that seared through Matt's voice whenever he spoke of his father always surprised Alfred. Not once had he heard his boyfriend use that tone when talking about anyone else, not even Ivan. No, for Ivan, it was only the tone of fear.

"…Matt, I bet that bastard's burning up in hell right now for what he did."

Still, the words were no comfort for the bitter Canadian. "He didn't suffer enough."

"It's true. He didn't suffer nearly enough as he should have. But now he's gone." Alfred enfolded his lover in his arms, the cotton of their sweatshirts rubbing together as he held him close. "You're still here, so he definitely got the short end of the stick."

Sighing, Matthew snuggled into the American's chest, somewhat discomfited that they were doing this out in broad daylight. Perhaps he could disappear in the warmth of his lover, fade away from sight. And if not, well, it was New York; he doubted anyone would care. "…I know that I wouldn't have met you and Ivan might've never been brought to justice if he never left me there, but I still…you know…wish it could've been different."

They cuddled in peace until the American's ears pricked, recognizing a stifled sound he knew all too well. "…Wait a minute; Eliz, I know you're behind that bush!"

"Good job, Gilbo," Elizaveta groused, emerging from the shrub with her video camera in hand. "You gave us away."

Brushing leaves out of his hair, the albino replied, "No, I believe it was your squealing that gave us away." She flipped her long brown hair in his face; he flipped her off.

"Really, Eliz?" Al asked, not at all surprised. "When is this documentary of yours going to be done anyway? It's been three years, and you're still filming us behind our backs-"

Matthew shut him up with a kiss, breaking away after a few seconds to rest his head in the crook of his boyfriend's neck. He was still camera-shy, but he was more or less used to being filmed for the Hungarian's documentary, so it wasn't that big a deal to share a kiss on tape. "Th-There you go, Eliz," he stated with a small blush across his face, stroking Al's chest with graceful fingers. "You got what you wanted."

Placing a hand on her hip as she wore a large grin, Elizaveta stated, "While I enjoy this, it's not exactly what I was looking for-"

"Oh, then maybe something more like this?" In a daring move, the Canadian hesitantly pressed down on the growing bulge in his lover's jeans, making Al groan. Eliz slapped a hand over her mouth to keep in her squeals as Gilbert rolled his eyes, muttering something about how she should be paying more attention to him since he was the awesome one.

"H-Hey," Al complained, cheeks flaring as he removed the hand from his crotch, "we're in public…and on tape. Quit making me out to be the yoo-kay."

"It's 'uke', not 'yoo-kay'," Eliz corrected him, wagging her index finger back and forth in a disapproving motion. "Anyway, as I was going to say before you gave me that great footage, I wanted to interview you guys about the trial. Then I'll secretly tape the sentencing hearing, you know, 'cause apparently that's illegal or something, I don't know. Then I'll get your reactions and last thoughts on tape, edit everything together and-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Alfred interrupted her. "Wasn't this a documentary on guys making out?"

"Yeah," Gilbert agreed, "why else were you stalking Rod and Vash earlier over at Juilliard?"

"Hush, Gil. That's a different project."

"Oh, and is that sex tape of Al and Matt also a different project?"

At this, Matthew's face flushed a deep red as he pulled his hood over his head in embarrassment. Shit, he'd forgotten all about that with all of the stress over the trial.

Not only had Elizaveta "accidentally" - the Canadian still wasn't sure if she'd meant it or not considering she had her video camera - walked in on them hooking up a few weeks ago, but she also caught some thrusting and moaning on video. Matt had been so mortified that he'd started crying and Al just froze, wanting to comfort his lover, but equally humiliated and afraid any further movement would just make things worse.

"Hey, that's only for my personal entertainment," the Hungarian asserted, pouting slightly. "And don't you get mad at me, Al, since I gave you a copy like you asked."

Mouth dropping open, Matthew looked to his boyfriend, who averted his blue eyes with a guilty smile. "I can't believe you!"

Frantically waving his hands in a criss-cross motion, Alfred stuttered, "I-I can explain!"

"Oh, go ahead," the Canadian encouraged him, folding his arms and tapping an accusatory finger on an upper arm.

"I wanted to see you outside of court…but, you know, you had to be isolated since you were a witness. …And you always look so hot when we do it, so, you know, I wanted to see what you looked like on the video."

His face only burned more as he yanked his hood down farther. "That's so embarrassing…"

As a bit of payback, the American leaned in and pecked the petal-like lips left exposed. "Not as embarrassing as the things I'm going to do to you tonight."

"Al, we're on camera…"

"You had no problem kissing me on camera before."

"You weren't saying all those embarrassing things before…"

"Okay, cut the gay before you give my babe a heart attack," Gilbert commented with a smirk.

Sticking her tongue out playfully, she snapped, "Call me 'babe' again, and I stick a frying pan up your ass, homophobe."

"You think I'm a homophobe? How the hell would I ever be able to deal with you if I was? I'm just worrying about your health, babe."

"My health goes through the roof when I get my yaoi, so don't worry so much, 'babe'."

Gil rolled his red eyes again, thinking of how much fun it was to tease her. "If you love yaoi so much, why are you changing your documentary?"

Green irises sparkling with excitement, Elizaveta explained, "Okay, so the media's covering the trafficking case like a storm; it's being publicized nationwide. Everyone knows the case, but do they know what it's like for the people involved? No."

She put her camera to her eye, zooming in on Matthew as she directed the conversation toward him. "This is the film that's gonna introduce everyone to what you've gone through and how your boyfriend supported you through it. It's got suspense, angst, and a twist of gay romance!"

The intimidating lens was starting to make the Canadian uncomfortable, and he squirmed out of Al's hold to absentmindedly push back a few locks of his blonde hair. "I…I don't know…"

"Come on, this is the chance of a lifetime!" she tried to convince him, passing the video camera off to Gilbert so she could clasp her hands together. "Please, Matt? Please, please, please! I could enter this in a film festival and I swear it would win top prize! Then maybe they'd even put it in theaters! You can show the world the importance of gay rights and stopping human trafficking! It could be a call to action! Come on, please?"

There wasn't a way to refuse the woman when she begged like that. Tilting his head to the side, Matt conceded, "…A-All right. I guess it can't hurt when the case is already blown all over the country."

"That's the spirit!" Eliz shouted, an alarm on her watch going off. "Huh? Ah, shit, I'll have to do your interviews tomorrow, okay?" She took her film camera back from Gil and gripped his arm. "Come on, Gil, let's go."

"Wait, where are you guys going?" Al asked, standing up from the park bench.

"Oh, Toris and Feliks are going on a date soon, so I'm gonna get some footage of them."

Smirking, Gilbert remarked, "You're kidding, right?"

"I already got footage of Matt and Al, Rod and Vash, and ol' Artie and Francis today, so they're the only ones left. Come on, let's go!"

"Guys, why am I dating this chick?" the albino cracked, allowing himself to be dragged away by his determined girlfriend.

"Because I'm awesome," Elizaveta countered, pulling Gil along.

"Come on," Al persuaded his lover, wrapping an arm around Matt's waist, "you've got a few days until the sentencing hearing, and then we go back to New Jersey. Let's have fun while we can. …Meaning we spy on our friends."

Nodding, Matthew leaned against his boyfriend, finding comfort in the warmth of his body heat in the crisp autumn air. They followed the others out of Central Park as leaves fluttered down from the treetops, staining the path with their fiery colors.

. . .

Everyone rose to honor the judge as he entered the courtroom, eminent as ever as he took his seat at the bench. Matthew watched nervously as the sentencing hearing officially began, the prosecution standing to review their case. It was difficult to focus on the words spilling from the prosecutors' lips as the Canadian's eyes flitted throughout the courtroom.

Before the judge were the defendants, none of their conditions alike. Natalia had a poker face, showing no emotion at all even though besides the trafficking charges, she had also been convicted of murdering a police officer. Next to her was Eduard, who was shaking slightly. Looking to Ismael, Matt noticed that the Cuban had bags under his eyes, as if he hadn't slept at all the night before. Ivan was smiling as usual, taking delight in the proceedings despite his guilty verdict just days ago.

As if he felt the stare in his direction, Ivan glanced over his shoulder straight to where Matthew was sitting. His smile widened and his artic eyes lowered, making the trembling Canadian's blood run cold. Satisfied with the frightened response, Ivan returned his attention to the front of the courtroom, that grin never leaving his face.

That's why he's not bothered at all, Matthew thought, shivers still running up and down his spine. He still has control over me; over all of us.

Scanning the rest of his row, he saw that all of them had been affected by the Russian's gaze, and he gripped Toris's hand as a measure of support. Toris noticed and squeezed back, stressed out of his wits for what was to come. There wasn't a single person in that row who would be satisfied with anything that would permit Ivan to ever be released from prison.

Somewhere behind them was Alfred and his father, along with their friends, but their presence was practically nothing in the masses of people observing the hearing. His violet eyes downcast, Matthew wished for Al to be right beside him, as he had been for the past three years, to hold him and promise everything would be all right. But this hearing was something the Canadian would have to go through with only Toris and the other victims by his side.

One by one, the prosecutors called the eight plaintiffs up to testify again about the horrors they had experienced. It was an effective way to appeal to the judge and convince him to condemn the defendants accordingly to the damage they had done. Matthew watched as they left the row to speak before the court, first Raivis, then Yao, all until it was Toris's turn. The Lithuanian looked to him with fear before making his way to the front of the court.

Toris held his paper in his shaking hand, opening his mouth to begin his speech. "The way all of you have tr-treated me in the six years I spent s-selling my body under your command is despicable. So many people…i-including some of you, have u-used me as nothing but a tool for sex and profit. Y-You forced me back in with threats after I escaped w-with Matt."

Here, the Lithuanian paused, clearly holding back tears and bouts of anger. "…This time, I g-got off clean, but you, Ivan, you hurt Matt worse than you hurt me before. For all of the torture you've put all of us through, there is no way I can forgive any of you, and I hope you all rot in prison."

At this, Matthew looked to the Russian, whose wicked grin hadn't left his face for even a moment during Toris's testimony. A raging fire burned inside of him as he realized Ivan wasn't at all affected by their words. To him, it was as if his pets were putting on a little show for him, entertaining him with their upset reactions, just as he wanted. What did it matter that he had been convicted? Even after the three years in which most of them had become grown adults, Ivan still had control over his pets like a puppeteer over his marionettes, manipulating their strings to his cruel will.

In his frustration, the Canadian crumpled up his own written testimony and shoved it in his pocket, knowing it would be of little use. Hell, it might only satisfy Ivan's sadistic needs even further. The only thing to do was to push his fear aside and set that bastard straight; show him that he wasn't under his control anymore.

Easier said then done, Matt thought as Toris took a seat beside him, the prosecutor calling his name next. His calves quaked as he stood up from his seat and walked to the front of the courtroom, his heart pounding viciously on the caverns of his chest, screaming at him to just turn around and run away.

But he couldn't; he had to face Ivan head on.

"I-Ivan," Matthew began, his lips unsteady in his trembling, "while all of you are responsible, y-you are the worst, and deserve the worst sentence the court can give you. You have wounded this me like nothing else in this world could.

"You raped me the day we met, the day my…f-father sold me to you to pay for his drinking and gambling habits, and forced me into prostitution. I can't even give an estimate of how many men have used this skin for their own filthy pleasure. When I escaped with Toris, you found us and brought us back to your house…wh-where you raped me in the most sadistic way I know. This skin I wear has been abused, exploited, violated, sullied, and tortured for three years, all by you and your means."

Ivan sat there with a large grin, clearly delighted with the testimony flowing from his former pet's mouth. Everything Matt had said only paraded the Russian's work around the courtroom, assuring him that he was still in control.

"But this is my skin," Matthew declared, his violet eyes blazing like those of a revolutionary. "This is my skin, my body, and my soul. They will never be yours, no matter how much you bruise and scar them, whether physically or mentally. I am not your pet; I am not your whore. I am not under your control, and I…I won't be afraid of you anymore. This is my skin, and you will never own me. That goes for all of us."

The cruel smile Ivan had been proudly wearing was wiped clean off his mug, replaced with a look one could only describe as unamused. Seeing so, Matthew looked to the judge and proclaimed, "And thus, I implore you, Your Honor, to give them the judgment they rightfully deserve for their crimes."

With that, the Canadian returned to his seat, his heart pounding inside his chest after confronting Ivan like that. It was a feeling like no other, fueled by fear, anger…and a sense of freedom.

After Matthew's testimony, the prosecution made their final points and rested. It was time for the defense to make their case.

The defense tried to appeal to the judge with sob stories, asserting that for Ismael and Eduard, the trafficking ring was their only way of putting food on the table. As for Ivan and Natalia, the defense alleged they had been abused by their father.

There were plenty of people that were abused by their father and didn't end up exploiting others for their own profit, Matthew thought, gripping Toris's hand tighter. Some of them end up as the ones exploited thanks to that father.

When the judge didn't believe that, the attorneys asserted that the Braginskis were mentally insane, claiming Ivan believed he was part of the Russian mob and Natalia had murdered the police officer because Satan told her to.

The prosecution immediately objected to that, asserting that all of the defendants had been subjected to psychological testing, and that everyone had been cleared of mental insanity. Although Ivan had shown some signs of antisocial personality disorder, a sociopath still knows right from wrong, and all of the defendants were fully aware of their actions.

As for the allegation that Ivan believed he was a member of the Russian mob, the prosecutors fought that he was only pretending, using his "friends in higher places" approach as a form of intimidation and coercion. "Anyone can look up a phone number in the yellow pages if he knows the surname of the resident," one of them argued, explaining how Ivan could have called the Kirkland residence to force Matthew to leave with him without the help of the mafia.

It was obvious the defense was grasping at straws, and it did all of the court a favor by resting. Matthew's heart pounded in anticipation, his body breaking out in a cold sweat as the judge contemplated all that had come before him. Judgment time had come.

His hands clammy as he wrung them together, Matt waited anxiously for the Russian's sentence. He paid no attention to Natalia's life imprisonment for murdering that police officer, or the lesser but still long prison terms for Eduard and Ismael in the case of human trafficking. All he cared about was how long Ivan would be incarcerated and whether or not he would ever be released.

Matthew's breath caught in his throat as the judge opened his mouth, his heart almost stopping.

"For the crime in eight counts of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation," the judge announced, "Ivan Braginski…life in prison without the possibility of parole."

Matthew's heart nearly burst from his chest as he slumped down in his chair, throwing his head back in relief. The rest of Ivan's sentence, the counts of forced prostitution, assault, rape, and all else passed right by him, for he was finally free from the Russian's sadistic clutch.

In his victory, the Canadian glanced toward Ivan, who sat calmly in his seat, his mouth but a firm line as his sentence was read. For once, Ivan was the one numbed and controlled, the prison gate that had been hanging precariously over his head officially shut, never to be released.

As the hearing officially came to an end, Matthew and Toris hugged each other tightly. It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from their chests, liberated tears streaming down their cheeks.

Closure was beautiful.

. . .

The aromas of apples and cherry blossoms flitted throughout the room as Alfred and Matthew bathed in the tranquil water, the Canadian's back pressed up against his lover's chest in the midst of soft bubbles. Al lathered his boyfriend's hair with the shampoo, leaning in to savor the soothing scents lingering on the blonde strands.

A genuine smile remained on Matthew's face, one that likely wouldn't leave for days in light of the liberation from his past. Alfred grinned, relieved to see his lover in such high spirits.

"How does it feel?" Al asked, his fingers roaming through the cleansing waves of his boyfriend's hair. "To be free from him, I mean."

Matthew's violet eyes lit up, fully alive. "It feels…amazing. Six years…I've spent six years living in fear of him, but now…I feel like I've been recalled to life again…for the last time."

"So, what do you want to do first in your new life?"

"I want to apply for permanent residence in the States before my T-visa expires."

"Right, that adjustment of status thing?"

"Yeah, it's been three years, so I'm eligible now."

"Well, you got another year until it gives out, but we can try to get the papers tomorrow if you want. That'll give them plenty of time to grant it."

"I'd like that."

"…You know, I thought your testimony was really powerful," Alfred commented, dousing his boyfriend's head with a bucket of water to wash away the suds.

Drenched locks framing his face, the Canadian informed him, "Well…I wasn't entirely truthful in that."

"Oh, really?"

Smiling with passionate eyes, Matthew looked over his shoulder at his lover. "Yes, this is my skin…but it is all yours."

Alfred's eyes widened then drooped with desire as his hands tenderly tightened around his waist, stroking the chaste skin. Blue irises gazing with a craving, Alfred turned the Canadian around and trailed kisses up and down his lover's body. Matthew let out soft moans as short blonde hair grazed his skin, the lips leaving their rightful mark.

Matthew's skin…his beautiful skin…skin that had been tainted and treated so wrong for years by many…was all his to kiss, caress, and love.

And it was absolutely pure.

. . .

(A/N: This is the first multi-chapter story I've finished since the sixth grade and I'm really proud of what I wrote, so I'm trying not to cry right now. Sorry, I'm really emotional. Thank you all for reading this, for the reviews, favorites, alerts, criticisms, just everything. See you guys next time!)